A week with David Byrne and Brian Eno

Okay, so as some of you may know David Byrne & Brian Eno released an album last year, the excellent ‘Everything That Happens Will Happen Today’. As a result David Byrne decided to tour the album, playing songs from the aforementioned record along with all other Brian Eno collaborations; Spanning three Talking Heads records (Fear Of Music, Songs About Buildings And Food and Remain In Light) and also their first post-Head’s release ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’. Brian Eno also happened to be giving a talk with John Hassle (Trumpet player and string arranger from ‘Remain In Light). I was fortunate enough to catch both of these events within a week.

Firstly, David Byrne, Saturday April 4th, Sheffield City Hall. Upon arriving at the time specified for doors, we were told Byrne was taking to the stage, after a quick burst through the doors we were ushered to our seats. Byrne is dressed head to toe (literally) in white ,along with his entire backing band and dancers.
‘Strange Overtones’ the hugely overlooked single from last year is the opener. What becomes blisteringly apparent within seconds is Byrne’s voice – not a fraction of it has dropped, it soars and lingers, hanging endlessly in the air, Goosebumps surface instantaneously and there is a predetermined feeling of joy creeping within.

The crowd remain seated; a few have taken to the side aisles and dance somewhat. This is until ‘Crosseyed And Painless’ starts up. Byrne’s weird, twisting guitar is met by the intruding palpable bass line, they each the antithesis of the other in rhythm, tone and tempo, yet they merge into a solidifying groove, wrestling and grappling one another into a submission that subsequently registers as a scolding remainder of the ingenuity of The Heads’ output. Within seconds the place begins to stand. Heads pop up one by one, as though human rockets are shooting from the seats. However, this is only the beginning.

By the time ‘Heaven’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’ ‘I Zimbra’ and ‘Life During Wartime’ have entered the atmosphere there are no boundaries. People leap over their seats (myself included) and the gap between the seating and stage becomes a giant dance floor; and for the first and only time at a seated concert that I have been to, there were no complaints. Three generations all danced harmoniously at Byrne’s feet – only a feeble hand stretch forward would have been met with Byrne’s idiosyncratic and irresistible foot-tap. During ‘Life During Wartime’ Byrne and his dancers even roll out the dance from Stop Making Sense, as they jog on the spot roaming back and forth. Perhaps an unnecessary piece of nostalgia inducing performance some might say, but at that precise moment when you’re jogging along with David Byrne it’s more than easy to forgive, as it’s the closest thing to encountering a Talking Heads experience anyone is likely come across – which for those few spellbinding moments superseded any level of objectivity.

The new material sounded crisp yet enchantingly warm and actually held it’s own along with a set consisting almost entirely of classics, ‘Home’ ‘My Big Nurse’ and ‘Everything That Happens’ were all majestic, and Byrne’s fragile vocals resonated deeply through the hall, and through those within it.

During the encore’s, by which point he was sporting a white frilly tutu, Byrne seemed physically humbled by the audience and perhaps as a token gesture; he returned the sentiment by playing a non-Eno and fan favourite song – ‘Burning Down The House’, this of course was not before he played an astonishing rendition of ‘Take Me To The River’, his voice sounding not a day older than it did thirty years ago.
The level of proximity to Byrne himself no doubt had an overpowering and overwhelming effect on my interpretations of the performance; none more so than the entire highlight of gig for me: hearing the un-amplified twang of Byrne’s strings on his guitar in front of me. It was a moment that I feel perhaps embodies the entire notion of personal attachment to music; in that music can be as perfectly crafted and precise and as sonically orchestrated as possible, but sometimes it’s the elements artists have no control over that often have the most devastating effect. It was an unparalleled level of intimacy that he managed to unknowingly and inadvertently create simply by playing his guitar. It was a humbling and magical experience.

Brian Eno & John Hassle. South bank centre, Queens Hall, London. April 9th.

The antithesis to Byrne personified, is perhaps the only way I could sum up this. The premise of this talk was to extend a “Dinner table conversation” that Eno and Hassle might have in a public environment, and to also promote a joint book they might have coming out.
I guess I was a little naïve in thinking they would be discussing music, or their musical relationship in someway that evening, as that was the last thing on their minds. Tonight was an open discussion on their philosophical beliefs on everything from the human condition, to religion, to politics through to sex, or it would have been had they ever concluded a topic upon which they begun discussing. Eno and Hassle are intellectuals, absolutely no doubt about it, but their relaxed format unfortunately intruded and impinged on their conversation and the evenings proceedings.

To attempt to reiterate what they discussed would be both fruitless and frustrating, arguably an apt description of the evening. They would brush upon points that would be genuinely interesting and before they could elaborate, or discuss, they would have drifted off onto another topic. This continually happened for what felt like a few reasons: Hassle had a rather large tendency to drift off into one area when retorting to a comment Eno had made, then Eno would have to stop him and bring him back, but instead of carrying on the discussion they started, they would broach a topic that they felt was somehow related to it, thus no closure; the premise may have been that it was “A Dinner Table Conversation” but regardless of the environment, nobody stops discussing things halfway through a conversation. The last contributing factor was time and mass of content. They had an hour and a half time slot (of which they vigorously kept an eye on by having a clock directly in front of them on stage) and they had a stage sprawled with notes on a varying mass of subjects. So the ultimate feeling was that you had brushed upon an array of topics to no avail or conclusion, instead of focusing on a few with intelligibility, consequently it lacked clarity and focus.
Early on Eno started to discuss his thoughts on the underlying link of Art, Sex, Religion and Drugs on the human condition and notion of surrender (very basic description there for word count sake), this alone would have been subject enough for them to discuss for the duration. But instead it became frustratingly unfulfilling. The analogy that often sprung to mind to depict the frustration was that of a conversation people can have when being completely twisted on drugs – a conversation that starts in good stead on what feels like a captivating point, but by the time they reach what their point is they have either forgotten what they were speaking about or have simply reached the beginning of the conversation again. This isn’t to say they didn’t know what they are talking about, but their method felt like a grim parallel to this at times.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable section of the talk was the Q&A at the end, which was simply a continual display in one-upmanship by people asking superfluously worded and irritating questions, in the hope they would be recognised as intelligent. Unfortunately this did nothing to add to the frustrating and inconclusive evening. Perhaps I was always due to be unfulfilled; I was expecting an in-depth look into the musical world of two great esoteric visionaries but instead I got a glimpse through a murky window into a world I wasn’t that interested in visiting. I even encountered a man afterwards who had left halfway through due to the condescending nature of the talk, so maybe I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.

In no way shape or form should a comparison be drawn between Byrne and Eno here, it wasn’t either artist’s intention to even be mentioned together in this capacity. I simply feel it is an interesting opportunity to see both artists in their current form who have shared a longstanding career together; and with Byrne doing his ‘Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno Tour’ I felt it seemed even more pertinent a time.

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